By Ken Williams | Editor
How our compassion gets in the way of solutions
San Diegans, by and large, are a generous people who are genuinely concerned about helping the homeless. But advocates for solving homelessness in America’s Finest City have a seemingly shocking response to those of us who desire to feed and clothe the misfortunate people who are living on the streets.
“If they ask you for money, don’t give them any,” urges JD MacDonald, head of the Uptown Community Service Center, a mail and computer center for the homeless in North Park.
City Councilmember Todd Gloria — who represents the Uptown and Downtown areas where the homeless problem is very visible to residents and tourists alike — echoed that theme.
“Don’t give away your money or your food to the homeless,” Gloria said. “Instead, give your money to groups that are working with the homeless.”
More than 100 people packed the Mississippi Room at the historical Lafayette Hotel in North Park on Oct. 28 for a “Forum on Homelessness: A Collective Impact,” presented by the North Park Community Association and moderated by its vice president, Sean Karafin.
Forum speakers stressed that our compassion towards the homeless is often misdirected and can make the problem worse.
“When you enable panhandling,” Gloria said, “the money is unlikely to go to the right thing.” He said homeless people who are afflicted with alcohol or drug problems will more than likely use the money to feed their addiction, and therefore the compassionate donor becomes an enabler.
“Same goes for the food,” Gloria added. “There is a lot of food out there.” He said that feeding the homeless doesn’t solve the problem, it only enables it by making free meals widely available.
Gloria pointed out well-meaning groups that try to help the homeless, particularly churches, often collect food, clothes and toiletries for the homeless. He illustrated how their vans pull up where the homeless congregate Downtown, handing out their donations to the homeless and then departing, and how the homeless then leave a mess behind as trash and unwanted items are discarded on the street.
“Care, not cash,” Gloria emphasized. He and other forum speakers stressed support for the Alpha Project and Father Joe’s. Gloria also recommended donating money to the “red parking meters” [see bit.ly/1N9OgjT] Downtown that help fund the Housing First, San Diego program. He suggested North Park might also want to install some “red meters” to aid the cause.
The Housing First program [visit bit.ly/1JyGa2g], operated by the San Diego Housing Commission, was widely praised during the forum. Rick Gentry, head of the Housing Commission, explained that this homelessness action plan has been very effective by creating additional affordable housing with supportive services. Gentry said the goal is to get homeless people off the streets and connected to services that will help them reclaim their lives.
Sgt. Rex Cole, of the San Diego Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, said the four officers assigned to HOT serve citywide, from the Otay Mesa neighborhood on the border with Mexico to Rancho Bernardo in North County.
“We offer the homeless help,” Sgt. Cole said. “But being homeless is not a crime. We will work with them, but they have to want our help.”
Sgt. Cole urged residents to call in any crimes committed by the homeless (911 for emergencies or 619-531-2000 for non-emergencies). He said residents who know of any homeless person who is seeking help should advise them to flag down any patrol car or call the non-emergency number.
Forum speakers lamented that there has been an uptick of 2.8 percent in homelessness this year, after a decline of 4 percent the previous year. The official 2015 count conducted by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless indicates there are 8,742 homeless people scattered across sprawling San Diego County. Of that total, 4,156 homeless people are unsheltered.
San Diego’s homeless situation is not as dire as other cities across California. Gloria said the homeless population has spiked 12 percent in Los Angeles County and 5 percent in Orange County.
Gloria and Sgt. Cole said that North Park’s homeless problem is not as severe as in other areas of the city. Gloria identified three problem pockets: Downtown, the San Diego River basin, and the beach and bay communities that include Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach. He said those three areas each had about 1,000 homeless people living without shelter.
Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins, who spoke to the audience before the forum began, said there are 135,000 homeless people in California. “We’re the state with the largest homeless population,” she said. “San Diego has the fifth largest homeless population in the U.S.”
Gloria noted that San Diego doesn’t get its fair share of federal money to fight homelessness, because of an antiquated formula. But he said after meeting with San Diego officials, federal authorities have agreed to recalculate the formula, and thus San Diego should get more money in future years.
To read the Police Department’s prevention tips regarding the homeless, visit bit.ly/1DrM9os.
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and Mission Valley News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.